MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine aerial surveillance showed Chinese coast guard ships were still guarding a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, but they did not harass and stop Filipinos from fishing there for the first time in years, the Philippine defense secretary said Sunday.
The fishermen's return to Scarborough Shoal, which China effectively seized in 2012, was "a most welcome development" because it brings back their key source of livelihood, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
China granted access to the tiny, uninhabited shoal 123 nautical miles (228 kilometers) from the northern Philippines after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders this month. After his China trip, Duterte announced without elaborating that Filipinos may be able to return to the shoal soon.
A Philippine navy plane spotted at least four Chinese coast guard ships around the shoal during a surveillance flight on Saturday, Lorenzana said, adding that an earlier report by the Philippine coast guard that the Chinese had left the area was incorrect.
"Flybys of our planes reported Chinese coast guard ships are still there, but our fishermen were fishing unmolested," Lorenzana told The Associated Press, adding that the government would try to carry out surveillance flights regularly in the area.
It's unclear how long China would keep the shoal open to Filipinos or if there were any conditions attached.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said, "There are no written agreements or rules, but Filipino fishermen who went there lately attest that they were not driven away nor were accosted."
There have also been fewer Chinese ships sighted in the area since more than a week ago or around the time Duterte made his visit to China, Esperon said.
Duterte made clear that the dispute over the shoal was far from over. He said he insisted in his talks with Chinese leaders that the shoal belonged to the Philippines, but that the Chinese also asserted their claim of ownership.
Since 2012, Chinese coast guard ships had driven Filipino fishermen away from the area, sometimes with the use of water cannons. Farther south in the Spratly Islands, China went on to construct seven islands in recent years despite protests from other claimants and the U.S., which insists on freedom of navigation in what it considers international waters.
The new development brought joy to the first Filipinos who ventured back to Scarborough in flotillas of small fishing boats.
"We're happy that we were able to sail back there," said Gil Bauya, who returned Saturday with a huge catch of red snapper and other fish to Cato village in the northwestern province of Pangasinan.
"They just let us fish," Bauya said, referring to three Chinese coast guard ships fishermen saw at the shoal from a distance. "We were waiting what they would do, but they didn't do anything like deploying small rubber boats to chase us like they used to do."
After three days of fishing just outside Scarborough's lagoon, where the fish are bigger, Bauya said they ran out of ice to preserve their catch and had to sail back home for the All Saints' Day holiday. Amid the festive air in Cato, where villagers helped them unload their bumper catch, Bauya said he and his crewmen plan to travel back to Scarborough this week.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Beijing on Saturday that China's withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal would be welcomed by Washington.
He said it would be consistent with an international arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea. The July 12 ruling said both Filipinos and Chinese can fish at the shoal, but China ignored it and continued to block and chase away Filipino fishermen until a few days ago.